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Human society

Humans form effective, coordinated, division-of-labor groupings at several levels of aggregation. At each level, there is a problem of metasystem transition. At each level, there is not only competition between other groupings at the same level, but also competition between the interests of the smaller incorporated units and the interests of the larger encompassing unit. Primary, face-to-face, groups are incorporated into organized city-states, and these into nations. A plausible node of selection and inter-organization competition can be envisaged at each of these levels. The great majority of evolutionary biologists deny the efficacy of biological group selection of those "altruistic" traits in which individuals act for the preservation of the group at the risk of their own well being and "inclusive fitness" (i.e., the representation of their own genes in future generations). This is not to deny the occurrence of group selection, but rather to say that its effects for self-sacrificial altruistic traits will be undermined by individual-vs.-individual selection. A group with heroically self-sacrificing altruists may thrive better. The inclusive fitness gains from this will be shared equally by the non-altruists within the group. For the altruists, these gains are in part undermined by the risks they run. The non-altruists pay no such costs, and thus out-breed the self-sacrificial altruists in the within-group genetic competition. (For the soldiers, etc., of the social insects, this intra-social-organization genetic competition has been eliminated by the sterility of each of the cooperating castes).

Our previous position accepted the following:

  1. Individual selection always dominates group selection at the biological level;
  2. "Groups are real" (Campbell, 1958) as opposed to methodological individualism;
  3. Self-sacrificial altruism in the service of human social groups genuinely exists;
  4. Such altruism can only be produced by group selection.
The solution was to limit group selection to non-biological cultural evolution and to see self-sacrificial altruism as a result of cultural group selection of ideologies, social-organizational traditions, moral indoctrination, and religious cosmologies (Campbell, 1972, 1975, 1983, 1991; Heylighen, 1992a, 1992b). This point of view had many plausible implications, among them an explanation of why moral commandments and lists of deadly sins contain explicit rejections of innate human nature. There is also the obvious group-coordination utility of beliefs in rewarding and punishing afterlives and reincarnations, which extend perceived self-interest into an afterlife and thus can promote self-sacrificial acts.

This simple point of view we are now ready to substantially modify for social control mechanisms within primary groups, retaining its relevance for secondary groups. One influence is the increased plausibility of biological group selection as seen by evolutionary biologists (cf. Wilson and Sober, 1994). All along, biological evolution has been credited for the human capacity for culture, including competent communication of useful information between individuals. But even in much less social animals, social communication creates a niche for self-serving deception, and biological group selection may be needed to keep the rate of such parasitism low enough so that there is a net collective communicative advantage. The resulting proximal mechanisms would include mutual monitoring and retaliation for "immoral" behavior (an analogue for the mutual enforcement of sterility among the social insect castes). We humans probably have an innate fear of ostracism, and a tendency to find painful the signs of hostility on the part of those we work or live with on a regular face-to-face basis. Innate tendencies to enforce group solidarity on others would be supported by both individual and group selection and may be identified as prerequisite for group selection.

The route to a cultural-evolutionary group selection that had been proposed contained several stages that built upon biologically evolved bases (Boyd and Richerson, 1985; Campbell, 1983, 1991). While these are presented as advantageous at the individual selection level, they are both plausible routes to biological group selection and might require group selection to avoid free rider parasitism and elimination by the negative costs of the self-sacrificial altruism they produce:

  1. An innate tendency to "conformist transmission" (Boyd and Richerson, 1985) would be individually adaptive for skills and environmental wisdom, but would also lead to primary group homogeneity on neutrally adaptive beliefs and behaviors. (In analogy with the role of "genetic drift" in biological evolution, this can be called "memetic drift.") These ingroup homogeneities and chance-produced intergroup differences provide the necessary setting for group selection if some of these chance homogeneities produced superior group-vs.-group competition.
  2. Trivers (1971) has posited an individually adaptive innate predisposition to joining reciprocally altruistic cliques, and a related innate tendency for "moralistic aggression" when such pacts are violated. (The latter might turn out to require group selection to supplement individual selection.) As we have noted above, this pattern may be summarized as "clique selfishness." It would be individually adaptive to join already existing selfish cliques. Culturally transmitted ingroup membership may be regarded as providing such opportunities (Brewer, 1981). Along with this individually adaptive cultural scaffolding innate predispositions might be selected. These would include a tendency to join and conform to such cliques, and also to pressure one's biological offspring to conform.
  3. Effective ingroup or selfish clique membership is furthered by visible and audible clues to ingroup membership. The neutrally adaptive ingroup homogeneities produced by conformist transmission would be available for such use. This would further sharpen the ingroup homogeneities and intergroup heterogeneities necessary for group selection at the cultural or biological level
. As we (e.g. Campbell and Gatewood, 1994) understand their argument, Wilson and Sober (1994) propose that group selection and individual selection can be concurrent, producing an ambivalence on the group preservation vs. individual preservation dimension. In behavioral evolutionary jargon, this would be a "facultative polymorphism." (For example, the males in many species of monkeys have two incompatible innate behavioral repertoires, one for submission, one for dominance. The learned dominance rank determines which will be displayed in which encounter.)

Even if biological group selection has occurred in human evolution, the persistence of genetic competition among the cooperators has produced a profoundly ambivalent social animal, in sharp contrast with the sterile castes of the social insects. For humans in social organizations, organizational optimizing is in continuous conflict with optimizing individual well-being and inclusive fitness. In parallel, primary group social solidarity competes with secondary group optimization in industrial and governmental bureaucracies.

Reference: Heylighen F. & Campbell D.T. (1995): "Selection of Organization at the Social Level: obstacles and facilitators of metasystem transitions ", World Futures: the Journal of General Evolution 45, p. 181-212.

Copyright© 1995 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

D.T. Campbell, F. Heylighen,

Aug 9, 1995 (modified)
Sep 1991 (created)


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